A career well-launched

Published 11:15 am Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Curtis Wilkerson, who lived in the Town of Victoria and attended Victoria Elementary School until the beginning of fifth grade, has reached for the stars. And has done so perhaps more literally than most.

He was a Quality Engineer and System Assurance Manager for several spacecrafts, including the Parker Solar Probe, which launched Aug. 12. During the several-year process of building and assembling the spacecraft, Wilkerson and the other members of the systems assurance team, who worked out of The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, made sure the hardware meets the quality requirements.

Far from being his first foray into spacecraft engineering, Wilkerson also worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) at its jet propulsion laboratory in California, and has worked on the Juno spacecraft, currently orbiting Jupiter and the Curiosity rover, currently stationed on the planet Mars.

He took a longstanding interest he had since he was a child and pursued it after high school, attending North Carolina A&T State University and received a mechanical engineering degree. He later went on to receive his master’s degree in aerospace engineering from Virginia Tech. Actually, he got his first job offer from NASA straight out of graduating from Virginia Tech.

He said the process wasn’t easy, and he experienced a lot of doubt particularly after graduate school. Wilkerson said he was able to overcome the self-doubt through the confidence he received from his education and working with people who share the same passion and fascination with space exploration.

“I wasn’t like that strange kid anymore,” Wilkerson said, laughing. “Now I’m surrounded by other people who grew up as that strange kid that enjoyed space. We all found each other.”

“It’s a matter of finding the type of stuff that you’re interested in,” Wilkerson said about what it means to pursue a field you love. “That goes a long way in the career field.”

There has been a lot of discussion about economic growth, about what it means to create an environment where people can thrive, including addressing barriers such as lack of transportation or earning below a living wage.

What shouldn’t be left out of the conversation is the importance of pursuing the things people are interested in, the things that motivate them, things that they are good at. Which also pulls into the importance of education for a sustainable community.

As children and adolescence entered school Monday, a lot of our schools’ teachers, staff and administrators will be working to foster passion and creativity in our students, in whatever way that presents itself.

We in the community can do our part to help our students and teachers, by creating a community where we’re taking steps to address lack of transportation and finding ways to foster economic growth.

Like Wilkerson has done with flying colors, we can find ways to ensure that our students can reach for the stars.